MacArthur Awards for Creative & Effective Institutions

Society for Education Welfare and Action - Rural

Jhagadia, India | 2007 Award Recipient

Saving the lives of mothers and their babies in India

It has been called the most neglected health problem in the world, and little progress has been made in reducing it. More than half a million women die each year as a result of pregnancy and childbirth. In India, one of the world’s riskiest countries in which to be pregnant, the government has launched a significant effort to reduce the maternal mortality rate. In the state of Gujarat, the Indian government is relying on one of its oldest and most respected non-governmental organizations to help.

The Society for Education, Welfare and Action—Rural (SEWA Rural) has improved the health of Gujarat’s primarily tribal population for nearly three decades. In 1980, surgeon Anil Desai and his wife, pediatrician Lata Desai, returned from their medical training in the United States to create the organization, which has become an anchor for health and well-being in rural India. More than 140 full-time employees, including 15 medical doctors, now work there.

The organization’s current work on maternal mortality focuses on the development and replication of a community-based approach. It provides health education and training to families, communities and front-line health workers—birth attendants, paramedics, doctors and students of medicine, social work, rural studies and health management—on maternal health issues. It works to ensure more institutional deliveries and professional involvement in home deliveries. It conducts research to provide more reliable estimates of maternal mortality and morbidity. And it advocates for maternal health programs with government ministries, policy makers and service providers.

The results have been impressive. Between 2003 and 2006, a set of interventions focused on residents from 168 villages reduced maternal mortality by 35% and neonatal morality by 21%. Federal and state governments in India would like to take that progress to a national scale, as part of an effort to reduce India’s maternal mortality ratio from 540 deaths per 100,000 live births to 100 deaths by 2010. (By way of comparison, the maternal mortality ratio in the United States is 8 deaths per 100,000 births.)

The state government of Gujarat is enlisting SEWA Rural to support the national effort to train new community health workers who will provide preventive primary health care, counseling, and referrals in village communities. In response, SEWA Rural will establish a new training and resource center focused on maternal mortality reduction. The center will scale up the group’s work in Gujarat, training more than 2,500 frontline health workers.

SEWA Rural will use its $350,000 MacArthur Award to establish a reproductive health training and resource center.


Grantee Profile: Learn more about Society for Education Welfare and Action—Rural

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